Fight to save Scottish wildcat

As part of a push to save the UK’s most endangered mammal, Scottish Wildcat Action has set up a website. 

Rhoda Grant, a member of the Scottish Parliament who launched the initiative, told Wildlife News Extra that the website ‘will not only help identify where our remaining wildcats are’, it will ‘glean information on hybrids and feral cat sightings’.

Wildcats live in broad-leaved forests throughout much of Europe, apart from Scandinavia. Widely persecuted in the past, populations have become isolated from each other. Wildcat bones haven’t been found in Ireland but the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

In The Wild Cat in Ireland, published in 1905, RF Scharff of the National Museum quoted an old Irish poem which refers to cats as wild animals and pointed to the many references to them in Irish folklore.

If bears, wolves and smaller creatures crossed the land bridge to Ireland at the end of the last Ice Age, surely the wildcat did too. A table prepared by Andrew Kitchener for the All-Ireland Mammal Symposium in 2009 lists the wildcat as ‘possibly present’ in the Bronze or Iron Age. This mammal is so elusive it seems unlikely the website appeal for sightings will add much to our knowledge. Visiting the Cairngorms some years ago in the hope of encountering the elusive pussycat, I met only two wildlife professionals who, after years in the highlands, had caught even a glimpse of one.

The ‘Scottish tiger’ resembles a large stout domestic tabby. The tell-tale ‘field-mark’ is a thick non-tapering bushy tail with three to five broad black rings around it. The tip of the tail is blunt and black. The chances of being able to check an animal’s tail for the distinctive rings, during a fleeting encounter in the wild, or when a cat is caught in car headlights, are slim.

Wildcat Action however, isn’t just relying on sightings reported by members of the public. It is setting up motion-sensitive field-cameras at 400 strategic locations. Like the detector which turns a light on when something moves in your garden, they will photograph any animal passing by. Feral cat and ‘hybrid’ records are also of interest. Our much-loved house pets are descended from a north African sub-species of wildcat but they readily interbreed with their highland cousins.

A domestic tom will range far and wide searching for receptive females, wild or tame, with whom to mate. The kittens resulting from such unions are at a severe disadvantage during the harsh Scottish winter and few survive it. Youngsters inheriting bright colours from their cosseted ancestors are easily spotted by predators.

However, some hybrids manage to survive, with the result that the wildcat gene pool is being gradually corrupted. A tabby-like cat, living wild in the highlands, is increasingly likely to be a hybrid rather than a pure bred specimen.

A report by the Scottish Wildcat Association in 2012, claimed only 35 genetically pure individuals of the Scottish race survive in the wild. Interbreeding is not just a source of genetic pollution; encounters with domestic cats expose the wild ones to infections to which they may have little resistance. Feral cats are classified as vermin and pests, entitled to no legal protection. Seen as a threat to nesting game birds, they are often persecuted. A wildcat, unfortunately, can be mistaken for one of them and shot, although it is afforded the highest level of legal protection.

Wildcat Action has identified six ‘priority areas’, isolated from each other in Scotland, where wildcats are present. Somehow, domestic toms must be restrained from impregnating wildcat females. Perhaps an apartheid regime, keeping the two types of cat apart, can be established?

Householders must prevent their pets from roaming where wildcats are present and offending toms summarily neutered.

‘We have just five years to stop Scottish wildcats from disappearing’ says the website.


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